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What makes peppers so hot?

chilli powder and chilliesThe substance that gives chilli peppers their intensity when ingested or applied topically is capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) and several related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids. Capsaicin is the primary ingredient in pepper spray.

When consumed, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are normally responsible for sensing heat. Once activated by the capsaicinoids, these receptors send a message to the brain that the tissue has experienced heat. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and releasing the body’s natural painkilling chemical, endorphin.

Because of the burning sensation caused by capsaicin when it comes in contact with mucous membranes, it is commonly used in food products to give them added spice or “heat” (piquancy). In high concentrations, capsaicin will also cause a burning effect on other sensitive areas of skin. The degree of heat found within a food is often measured on the Scoville units. In some cases, people enjoy the heat; there has long been a demand for capsaicin-spiced food and beverages. There are many cuisines and food products featuring capsaicin such as hot sauce, salsa, and beverages.

It is common for people to experience pleasurable and even euphoriant effects from ingesting capsaicin. Folklore among self-described “chilliheads” attributes this to pain-stimulated release of endorphins, a different mechanism from the local receptor overload that makes capsaicin effective as a topical analgesic. In support of this theory, there is some evidence that the effect can be blocked by naloxone and other compounds that compete for receptor sites with endorphins and opiates.

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